As a leader, you are often placed in situations that require what’s described as a difficult conversation. It’s quite common to put off these painful encounters because the outcome may create discomfort or you aren’t ready to deal with the consequences, but there is a better alternative: learn how to prepare for difficult conversations and take “tried and true” actions while conducting them.
One of the most common types of difficult conversations, as identified by executives, is giving negative feedback to an employee. It’s perfectly normal to have irrational thoughts about the outcome—assuming it will be a catastrophe—and postpone the conversation until a “trigger moment” occurs. The problem with that approach, which is really no approach at all, is that you risk having an out-of-control encounter and outcome.
The key questions you need to ask yourself during the first step (thinking) in the process of achieving a successful difficult conversation are as follows:
- What can I do differently?
- What am I willing to do differently?
You must start by having a conversation with yourself. Think about what’s happened, exploring truth, intention and blame—and remembering that everyone’s perception of the truth is their reality. Then, understand that the goal of having a difficult conversation is minimizing hurt, anger, and guilt, and allowing for as much dignity and learning to occur as possible. That means shelving judging behavior in favor of learning behavior, and moving from certainty to curiosity.
During the second step (taking action) in the process of achieving a successful difficult conversation, it’s important to use “I” messages to describe your feelings and don’t assume you know how the other person feels. You should also avoid using global generalizations like “you always” or “you never,” and focus on being professional by being proactive rather than reactive and initiating difficult conversations in a timely manner.
By engaging in the following four actionable behaviors prior to having a difficult conversation, you can set a positive tone for the interaction, foster a calm presence and hope to provide closure to an uncomfortable situation.
- Be intentional in your behavior. Identify what your ideal outcome of the conversation would be prior to meeting with the individual.
- Clarify the issues objectively. Describe behavior and provide objective data; do not attack the person.
- Listen non-defensively. Be sure to hear the other person’s perspective.
- Generate a plan. Have an action plan in mind and follow-up with next steps in a timely manner.
Also be aware that the best defense is a good offense—implementing rules, roles and expectations. While you can never change another person’s behavior, people are forced to change in response to your behavior. The best example of this in the workplace is eliminating the need for difficult conversations by giving timely and honest feedback that positively affects employee behavior and helps them exceed expectations.